HUN­DREDS LEAVE ISIS BAS­TION IN FIRST EVAC­U­A­TION

Kur­dish-led SDF pre­pare fi­nal of­fen­sive as bus­loads of women and chil­dren are moved from mil­i­tant-held Ha­jin

The National - News - - NEWS - THE NA­TIONAL

Hun­dreds of res­i­dents were moved from the fi­nal ISIS strong­hold in east­ern Syria, ac­cord­ing to a war mon­i­tor.

About 600 peo­ple were al­lowed to leave Ha­jin on Satur­day, the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights re­ported.

The desert area around the small town on the Euphrates River is one of the last ar­eas where ISIS main­tains a pres­ence. At the height of its power in 2014, the group con­trolled ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq about the size of Bri­tain.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said the 600 peo­ple, mainly women and chil­dren, were moved on 25 buses sent by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces.

Ob­ser­va­tory head Rami Ab­del Rahman said that sev­eral dozen mil­i­tant fight­ers were among those taken to ar­eas held by the Kur­dish-Arab al­liance.

The SDF, backed by air strikes from a US-led coali­tion, launched an of­fen­sive in Septem­ber to oust ISIS from what re­mains of the once-sprawl­ing caliphate it pro­claimed in 2014.

Mr Ab­del Rahman said about 16,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 760 ISIS fight­ers, have fled the area since the start of De­cem­ber.

He said this was the first time the SDF and coali­tion forces pro­vided buses, sug­gest­ing a po­ten­tial deal had been struck be­tween the war­ring sides.

The US-led coali­tion on Satur­day fired more than 20 mis­siles against mil­i­tant po­si­tions and about 300 SDF com­bat­ants were sta­tioned near the vil­lage of Sousa in prepa­ra­tion for a fi­nal as­sault, the mon­i­tor said.

De­spite the SDF ad­vances, ISIS fight­ers have con­tin­ued to launch des­per­ate coun­terof­fen­sives. Last week, mil­i­tants took ad­van­tage of poor vis­i­bil­ity caused by bad weather to launch a co-or­di­nated at­tack.

“Twenty-three SDF fight­ers were killed and nine ISIS ji­hadists were also killed in fight­ing that lasted all night and into Mon­day morn­ing,” Mr Ab­del Rahman said.

At least two sui­cide bombers were used in the at­tack but the ISIS fight­ers failed to hold any ter­ri­tory. “On Mon­day morn­ing, the SDF launched an of­fen­sive and re­took all the po­si­tions they lost,” the Ob­ser­va­tory said.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory, 1,087 ISIS fight­ers have been killed since the start of the op­er­a­tion on Septem­ber 10, while 602 mem­bers of the SDF have been killed.

An es­ti­mated 25,000 peo­ple have fled vi­o­lence over the past six months in east Syria, the United Na­tions refugee agency said on Fri­day.

The agency warned of “mount­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties” in the area, but did not pro­vide fig­ures.

Ahead of Satur­day’s par­tial evac­u­a­tion of the town, the UN es­ti­mated that 2,000 civil­ians were trapped in Ha­jin.

“Con­di­tions are re­ported to be in­creas­ingly des­per­ate,” the UN said.

Over the past five weeks, more than 8,500 civil­ians dis­placed from around Ha­jin have sought shel­ter in neigh­bour­ing Al Has­sakah gover­norate.

The dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult jour­ney for civil­ians to reach safety some­times in­volves spend­ing sev­eral nights in the desert ex­posed to cold and wet win­ter weather, with­out ac­cess to food or wa­ter. This has con­trib­uted to the deaths of six chil­dren, said UNHCR spokesman An­drej Ma­he­cic.

The fight to elim­i­nate the last pock­ets of ISIS has been shaken by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s an­nounce­ment last month that he is with­draw­ing US troops from Syria.

US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo on Satur­day at­tempted to re­as­sure Wash­ing­ton’s Kur­dish al­lies, who fear the de­par­ture of Amer­i­can troops would al­low Tur­key to launch an at­tack against them.

“The with­drawal was merely a tac­ti­cal change,” Mr Pom­peo said. He said in Abu Dhabi that he was op­ti­mistic a way could be found to pro­tect the Kurds while al­low­ing Turks to de­fend their coun­try against ex­trem­ists.

“We are con­fi­dent we can achieve an out­come that achieves both of those,” he said.

About 16,000 peo­ple have fled the area since the start of De­cem­ber

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